Yes, the buzz is now near deafening around “Paul,” but not without good reason. The film is already playing like gangbusters in the U.K., home to the film’s stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and over the weekend, the film unspooled to an enthusiastic reception at SXSW. In our review, we called the film funny, touching and rewarding, noting an inspiration from the works of Steven Spielberg, and that’s no mere coincidence.
We sat down with director Greg Mottola at SXSW to talk about the film and he readily admitted that Spielberg’s early works, “Duel” and “The Sugarland Express,” have their imprint on “Paul.” We also chatted about the film’s mixture of tones and the exciting challenge of working with Pegg, Frost and Seth Rogen.
The Playlist: How long did it take you to make the film?
Greg Mottola: Two and a half years because part of it we had to do really slowly because we didn’t have a giant budget so we couldn’t afford to make a lot of mistakes, we couldn’t afford to go down the wrong road for too long with animation. Double Negative who did the animation is great, but we got them for a bit cheaper than movies generally get them and part of that deal was that we had to go on their schedule and that slowed us down a bit. But you know, besides loving Simon and Nick and being a huge fan, I was quite intimidated because they’ve worked with Edgar [Wright] to amazing effect, and I thought, “Well I’m going to be fucked, most people are going to say they wish Edgar had directed it,” but I thought “Well, the one thing I might bring to it, not just different from Edgar, but different from other directors is an obsession with getting a naturalistic kind of method comedy acting.” Because I feel like that’s the thing we don’t see as much [and] usually CG characters are supporting players for comedy relief, there’s notable exceptions like Gollum and things like that, but even Gollum is really a supporting player.
It’s a testament of what you guys did, because I forget Seth’s in it.
Simon, I don’t know if he told you the story, but when he went to the premiere he thought, someone couldn’t make it and he realized it was Paul. Because he was like literally just tired and thinking “Who wasn’t there?” Paul wasn’t there, I mean Seth. So that to me was the big challenge and I even went out of my way to not direct it the way Edgar would direct it because I could never do what he does. But I saw the movie had the rhythms of a throwback to the ’70s road movie. It’s not a big spectacle and it’s also not…it’s meta in a slightly different way. I mean Simon does this pop culture mash-up thing, it’s what he does. He’s the Kanye West or Dr. Dre of comedy. But it’s like taking an old song, mixing it into a hip-hop song and having the energy of something old that’s being repurposed.
What were some of those road movie influences?
I watched [Spielberg’s] “Duel” and “The Sugarland Express” a lot because I knew we didn’t have the time and money, first of all. I mean those are low budget films [but] ‘Sugarland Express’ was shot by Vilmos Zsigmond [and it’s] a beautiful movie, but I’ve never shot landscapes before. ‘Sugarland Express’ is a movie that I really loved and watched a lot.
Both of those movies are fantastic.
Yeah, “Duel” is incredible. “Duel” is one of the greatest suspense films of all time.
How is it working with Seth Rogen again?
For me it was a pleasure. When I read the script and we were talking early on about who should do it I thought of Seth, because I’ve known Seth since he was 17 and he’s now rich and famous, but he’s still the same guy. One of the things I love about Seth is that he doesn’t give a shit about what other people think of him. And that’s a very American thing too. I think you’re expected to bow down to populace, and it comes across as arrogant and it’s just like no, it’s just being yourself. But it’s kind of like Hugh Grant being caught with a prostitute and he has to go on TV and apologize for it. If Seth got caught with a prostitute…not that Seth gets prostitutes, he doesn’t. But I like that about Paul. Paul is that kind of character.
I’ve heard some people say he’s kind of like Seth, he’s sarcastic and smokes dope.
Yeah and makes no apologies for it. There were little things they built into the script that I thought you can do in mainstream comedy and have an alien say them, but if it was a human actor saying that he’s a bi-sexual atheist I don’t think it would fly in certain states.
I was surprised by the R rating, I thought it would have been PG-13, except for the F bombs.
And the pot smoking…actually cigarette smoking now can get you an R, so you know, there is a lot we would have had to take out. But it’s such a softer movie than “Superbad,” it’s such a softer R.
I also feel like it’s two different films. Was that intentional?
The first time I met Simon — we met the day “Superbad” came out and he hadn’t seen it yet, he’d seen “The Daytrippers” in London and liked it — and he said, “I just want this film to be more indie. I don’t want it to be…I want the road trip to work, I want it to feel like a road trip.” He kept saying [it should be like] “Little Miss Sunshine” with an alien instead of Alan Arkin. But the alien is a special effect who’s just there, he’s just hanging out, he’s just part of an ensemble. And then he went and watched “Superbad” right after we met, they hadn’t even written the script yet. [We planned a meeting] and I thought about what he said, so my feeling was I would shoot the movie in the beginning a bit more like an indie film, pretty simple, hand held, and then when Jason Bateman’s character is introduced he’d be just a tiny bit more stylized, mostly in the music and the feel of it. And the stuff with the agents is obviously quite broad, that stuff would have a slightly different feel than our main characters and those things would start to merge as they crash into each other and then the action and the chases would happen and it would become the movie that Graham and Clive would see in their minds. Now they’re in their fantasy movie, they’re no longer in reality. —interview by RP